Lisa Stillman is an instructor in the biology department at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana. Back in 1974, when she was 12, she and a friend dressed up and posed for a photo in blackface, wearing wigs with bones in their hair. Her friend put a pillow underneath her shirt, pretending to be pregnant. It was an insensitive depiction of how racists largely perceived black women– primitive, and pregnant. But in 1974, she was just a child, and like her friend, a product of their upbringing.
Unfortunately, 1974 didn’t stay in their racist past. Fast forward to October 2016. Lisa the teacher dug the old photo out of 42 years of accumulated pictures and posted it online. She actually made it her profile pic. Her friend saw it and commented:
“Haha! We would be sooooooo NOT politically correct these days!! . . . That was soo much fun dressing up that year!!”
What? Are they still 12?
It might have been fun for a couple of kids 44 years ago, but for a 50-something in 2018, posting such a photo was insensitive at best, and for a teacher and influencer of young minds in 2018 just inappropriate on so many levels. Will the real Lisa Stillman please stand up.
But then I forget what dispensation I’m in. This is, after all, the Time of Trump, and if it’s okay for the President to make fun of disabled people and to be an unapologetic “p***y grabber,” surely its okay to put a little blackface on.
Jane Doe, a student at Purdue University where Lisa Marie Stillman teaches and influences, saw the post and reported it to school officials. She (or maybe he) preferred not to use his/her real name so as not to have to deal with reprisals from other blackface-minded whites on campus. S/he posted the tweet along with this message:
Why is this person still on the @LifeAtPurdue payroll? Lisa Stillman cannot educate students of all backgrounds with a Facebook profile picture that shows her in #blackface with an #offensive costume. Bring justice to campus! #faceitpurdue @purduemitch @PurdueBSU @SPARCpurdue pic.twitter.com/QuxsxYzm8h
— Jane Doe (@purduejustice) April 19, 2018
The school’s response: “[A]t Purdue, we do not punish speech, particularly when off-campus speech is expressed by an employee speaking as a private citizen.”
In other words– go pound sand.
Make no mistake about it, whites in blackface have contributed to many negative racial stereotypes about Blacks that persist in America even until this day. But just maybe the whole blackface discussion bears expansion.
The man largely credited for first putting on blackface was Thomas Dartmouth “Daddy” Rice (1808-60). In 1828, in a New York theatre, he performed a song-and-dance routine in– blackface– wearing tattered clothes. He based his character on a persona named Jim Crow– who had for a long time been popular among black slaves. Rice saw an opportunity. He stole the black slaves’ folk story and the traditional slave song called Jump Jim Crow and painted himself black to perform it before white audiences.
Frederick Douglass said it best: Blackface performers are, “…the filthy scum of white society, who have stolen from us a complexion denied them by nature, in which to make money and pander to the corrupt taste of their white fellow citizens.”
Other white actors, seeing the money to be made singing the slaves’ songs and dancing the slaves’ dances, donned blackface and started dancing. Before long there was a slew of white minstrel acts performing around the country, with every performer wearing blackface.
White audiences howled at the cakewalk — the highlight of the first part of every minstrel show. They might not have laughed so loud if they had known that the cakewalk originated with plantation slaves laughing at the slavemasters behind their backs and imitating the way that they walked.
Blackface was possibly more love-hate than the historical record would dare disclose. The minstrel acts may not have been the sincerest form of flattery, but in a perverse sort of way it was flattery nonetheless. It’s complicated; kind of like the boy who terrorizes the girl in the seat in front of him by constantly pulling her pigtails– because he likes her. White people who “ridicule” black people by dressing up in blackface might just be looking for a way to temporarily be what they can never be– just as Frederick Douglass said– without exposing themselves and their innermost thoughts to their racist friends and peers. Kind of explains all the mixed race children running around the plantation.
Black envy has permeated every aspect of western civilization, ever since hordes of barbarians descended out of the north and first encountered blacks in their citadels of learning and trade in places like Mali, Ghana, Egypt and Timbuktu.
There is an argument to be made that the need slavers felt to debase– no, erase– black life stems largely from mixed feelings of inadequacy, envy and an inexplicable hatred of melanin. It is therefore surprising to see some whites temporarily making themselves black through face painting and movement mimicry.
The faces of the pharaohs and the sphinx with their wide noses and thick lips are certainly part of the overall equation, because they are a constant reminder of just who blacks had been before their fall into captivity and historical obliteration.
But still we rise.
Every time I see a white person in blackface I am tempted to shrug it off, but then I am reminded that it represents the theft of black identity, creativity and more– not just the negative stereotypes so intentionally portrayed. And I am comforted by the fact, that no one steals anything, Lisa Marie, that does not have real value attached.
Fist on de heel tap,
Den on the toe
Ebry time I weel about
I jump Jim Crow.
Weel about and turn about
En do jus so,
And ebry time I weel about,
I jump Jim Crow.